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It hit me how much Adam reminded me of Bennett. And that made me feel strangely satisfied and optimistic. Adam was sweet and vulnerable and in love with his girlfriend, Andrea. He wasn’t a virgin like Bennett, but I knew he was being smart about using protection.

The old aluminum door swung open, creaking on its hinges, and the noise from the TV came at me like a physical blast, smacking me upside the head. Mom always had the TV turned up too loud. “Where is she?”


She sat in a chair with a damn cigarette dangling from her busted-up mouth. When I got a good look, my hand shot to my face. A purple bruise formed beneath her left eye, and her top lip was cracked and split.

“I don’t know why Adam called you.” Her voice was gravelly and harsh. “Not like you’ve shown your face around here in months.” I ignored her pity party. I talked to her plenty on the phone, and to my brother even more. I left this place for me. To save myself. And I would have taken Adam with me if she’d have let me.

“What did he do, Ma?” I asked, hands on my hips. “Punch you in the face a couple of times?”

“You don’t know anything about it, Avery,” she said, pointing an accusing finger at me. “Don’t come marching in here acting like you own this place. You left us, remember?”

“Mom, I’m in college, remember?”

“You left long before college.” She looked so vulnerable then. Like she was just hanging on to her sanity by a thread. I’d wondered if her lifestyle would ever catch up to her. Accepting any man into her home, into her bed, hoping they’d “love” her back and stick around long enough to help pay some of the bills.

That’s where she and I parted ways. I accepted only men I wanted into my bed, and then kicked them to the curb immediately afterward. And no way in hell did I ever beg them to care about me, help me financially, or do any special favors for money.

“I tried to tell you why I was leaving back then, Mom,” I said. “But you didn’t believe me.”

She refused to meet my gaze, just taking long drags on that cigarette and blowing smoke into the air. I wouldn’t be surprised if her coffee was spiked with something strong, too.

“You need to ice that shiner.” I pulled a bag of frozen peas from the freezer, knelt down beside her, and held it to her eye.

When she finally looked at me, I saw that her resolve was softening.

“Do you believe me now?” I whispered, forcing the matted blond hair away from her face with my fingers.

Tears sprang to her eyes and rolled down her cheeks in fat trails. She’d probably never say it out loud, but I took that as her admission.

“He’ll just make it hell for you,” I said, adjusting my knees on the tile. “You’ll have to get a restraining order against him.” “A restraining order?” Her bottom lip hung open and then started to quiver.

I nodded. “You still love him?”

She shook her head. “Thought maybe I did. But he’s changed.”

I bit my tongue to keep from telling her that he was just putting on a show for her all those years ago. When in reality he was proving his true colors in my bedroom, in the middle of the night.

“You afraid of him?”

She squeezed her eyes shut. Again, her only admission.

“Get in the car,” I said, standing up. “Adam, too. We’re going down to the station.”

She wouldn’t move. Just stared at me with those puppy dog eyes. One of them with a black and purple ringer.

“Don’t you dare try to argue with me,” I said through gritted teeth. “You have an underage child in your home. You need to protect him until he graduates from school.”

I went down low, right next to her ear. “At least do right by him, if you couldn’t do right by me.”

She inhaled a lungful of air that left her gasping. She stood on shaky legs and moved toward the door, grabbing her purse on the way out. Adam gave me a sidelong glance, but didn’t ask what the hell was going on. A hundred bucks said he’d already figured it out.

On the way into town, I dialed the one person who’d be stunned to hear from me. But I still had his number saved in my phone.

He answered on the first ring.

“Gavin, it’s Avery.”

There was a long pause. So I filled in the silence. “I know it’s been a long time, but I need your help. Your father’s, too.”

*** I dropped my mom and brother at home after we filed the temporary restraining order at the police station. I had an afternoon shift at the nursing home and needed to get my butt back on the road.

Mom would need to attend a court hearing to make the restraining order stick, and Gavin promised to have his father look into it as soon as I told him who the charge was against.

Even though we ended our relationship badly, he knew I went through hell with that man.

Mom assured me that Tim had gotten back on the road already—that he had a wife forty minutes away in Russell Township. Scumbag. But Mom would have taken him back anyway.

Regardless, I made mom call one of her old flames to stay the night—nothing like a damsel in distress to make the men come running; look how Bennett took care of me after my almost-break-in.

The thought of me sleeping in Bennett’s bed again lit the usual fire in my belly, but I pushed the thought away.

I begged Adam to stay at my place this weekend. Even offered to have his girlfriend come, too. But he refused. Said he wanted to stick around home, just in case. He promised to come up next week instead and to call me first thing in the morning or sooner, should he need me.

*** The moment I walked into Mrs. Jackson’s room that afternoon, she knew I’d had a tough day. “You look like hell, princess.”

“Are princesses allowed to look like hell?” I asked, adjusting her position in bed. She hated lying flat on her back. She needed to have a view of the grounds beyond her window. “Even princesses have bad days,” she said, touching my shoulder. “Tell me what happened, sweetie.”

I told her about my mother, leaving out details about exactly who Tim was and what he’d done to me years ago. I didn’t need her blood pressure rising any higher today. She’d been having a rough time of it lately. Her feet were swollen and her temperature had spiked earlier in the week.

“You’re a good daughter,” she said, patting my hand. “And big sister.”

I smiled, prepping the thermometer. “And if I was your grandmother,” she huffed, “I’d knocked some sense into that mother of yours.” I thought back to my real grandma and how she was just as strong-willed as this lady in front of me. A smiled tugged the corners of my lips. They’d certainly both have given my mother a run for her money.

“I believe you would,” I said. “If you were my grandmother, my life would be immeasurably happier. Adam’s, too.”

“Consider me an honorary grandmother then,” she said. “I insist. I already love you like a granddaughter.”

“That means more than you know.” I felt the stinging of tears behind my eyes. “Now tell me where that husband of yours is. I haven’t gotten my flower fix today.”

“You’ll get your own flowers someday,” she said, a twinkle in her eyes. And I knew what was coming next. “So, how’s Pretty Boy doing? You haven’t talked about him in a while.”

“His name is Bennett. But he is pretty,” I said. “And nothing is going on with him. We’re just friends.” Although I wasn’t sure if even that was true anymore. Not after what had happened with Oliver at the tattoo parlor.

“Mmmm-hmmm . . .” she drawled. “I don’t believe you for one minute. Not with that fire blazing in your eyes.”

After recording her temperature, I tucked her in and waved good night. “See you on Monday.”

I got a text from Rob on my way home. I almost didn’t check it because I was too tired and definitely not in the mood. At least not for him.

Rob: You home?

Me: Not yet.

Rob: Think I left my Ray Bans at your place—can I pick them up?

Me: Why do you need them so bad? They’re only shades.

Rob: Mom bought ’em for me, they’re pricey as hell, and I’m seeing her for brunch 2morrow. Me:I’ll be home in ten minutes.

I had changed into my flannel pajamas and had already poured myself a glass of wine when I heard my buzzer. I grabbed Rob’s sunglasses off my kitchen counter and went to meet him at the door.

Maybe he’d get the hint that I wasn’t into anything more tonight, in case that was on his mind.

“Looks like somebody’s ready for bed,” he said, looking down at my fuzzy slippers.

I was so covered up, I probably knocked the thought of a quickie straight from his head.

“Yeah, I’m beat.”

We stood in my doorway chatting about Rob’s plans with his buddies for the night when Bennett stepped off the elevator. I straightened as tension radiated up my spine and across my shoulders. He wore a gray hoodie, baggy jeans, and a pair of worn-in blue Converse sneakers. Wow, he made casual look good.

Bennett adjusted his red ball cap lower on his head when he spotted me. His shoulders hunched up and he looked behind him, like he hoped the building had a rear-door exit so he could made his escape.

“Hey,” he said, and dipped his head as he passed. He didn’t even look at Rob and probably assumed he was just another one of my friends with benefits.

But maybe Rob wasn’t. Not anymore.

Bennett Reynolds was messing with my head.

I didn’t want him to get away so easily. I wanted to talk to him, to make sure we were still cool.

Even though I was pretty sure we weren’t. “Where are you headed tonight, Bennett?”

Bennett paused at the door and seemed to be weighing the decision of whether or not to turn around. My stomach pitched and rolled.

“Up to the corner bar,” he said. His eyes were dark and stormy. “To meet a friend.”

The way he said the word friend made my insides curdle. Was he just giving it back to me, or was he actually meeting a girl?

“That’s cool,” I said, not meaning a word of it. “Um, this is my friend Rob.” Bennett gave a simple nod and turned again to leave. And suddenly I wanted to usher Rob the hell out the door as quickly as possible.

“All right, Rob, I’m gonna hit the hay.” I said it loud enough for Bennett to hear. The door slid closed behind him, and I watched him walk down the sidewalk to the street. He never missed a beat and never once looked back at us.

Rob looked between me and the door, his expression dark. It was an emotion I’d rarely seen before—he’d always been pretty laid-back and happy-go-lucky. Which made him the perfect f**k buddy. No questions asked.

“So, um . . . thanks for the shades.” Rob twirled the sunglasses in his fingers with a jerky, odd motion, like there was something else he wanted to say. For the first time I had the impression that maybe he was wishing for more tonight. That maybe he had hoped I’d invite him in. He sighed. “Tired, huh? Catch you later, then.”

I stayed up a bit later to watch a home-decorating show in bed. But my concentration waned. Every time I heard the sound of a key turning in the front entrance door, I imagined it was Bennett coming home, possibly with a girl.

I pictured Bennett lying beside me, his strong arms embracing me, his warm mouth against my lips.

I wanted to inhale his coconut scent, map every inch of his skin with my tongue, and hear my name tumble from his lips again when I made him come undone.

I hoped that Bennett might stop over after the bar because he was alone and wanted my company. But he never did.

Chapter Fifteen

The clambake was tonight, and it had been drizzling all day. But fall days are unpredictable, and Ella said they’d have large tents set up to shield the partygoers from the elements. Joel apparently had been working on shucking corn all day with his frat buddies. They’d also been hitting the keg early, and Joel was napping before the big party.

I figured this was the night I needed to get my shit together—take back control of my life. Bennett had too much of a hold on my thoughts and fantasies, and I needed a reality check.

I’d gotten to a point in my life where I was content. I worked hard, attended classes, and had good friends. When I was horny I called Rob or picked up guys at parties or bars and made out with them, let them feel me up, or let them get me off. It made me feel desirable and a little less solitary for that short period of time.

Plus, I played by my own rules. I was in control. Simple as that. I didn’t need anything more complicated.

Besides, it was now blatantly obvious that Bennett was done with me as well. Maybe the girl he had gone to meet at the bar the other night was the one he’d begun dating before he met me.

Ella and Rachel honked to pick me up just as I was texting Adam. He told me all had been quiet on the home front, Mom was going out with her girlfriends tonight, and he and Andrea were staying in to watch a movie.

I made sure to dress warm. Skinny jeans, red sneakers, and a thick black sweater. When I slid into the back seat, Rachel squealed. “Let’s get laid tonight, bitches.”

We high-fived each other and were on our way. The rain subsided, so the two-block trek from the car was pleasant. The temperature was warmer than expected, so when my sneakers got wet from all the puddles, I didn’t mind so much. I could have walked to the party from my apartment, but Ella had insisted on picking me up because of the rain.

The white tents were gleaming against the night sky and the smell of clam broth was in the air. It reminded me of autumn, crisp leaves, and cozy nights. Rachel grabbed us some beers from one of the coolers lining the fence while Joel pulled Ella into a mini make-out session.